In suburban America, we like our bumper stickers, yard signs, and graphic t-shirts. In the online world, we love our memes. But what happens when slogans become the basis for our conversations and influencers become the authority on which the conclusions of our moral debate rest?
When I was in graduate school studying bioethics, I learned that moral dialogue is an art. The frameworks that guide this dialogue rely not just on medicine and law but also on philosophy and literature. Social media, however, are not a framework or a form for guiding robust dialogue. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok mold content to create visual stimulation without engaging the moral vision necessary to handle those claims on our attention. When content conforms to these standards, it functions to stir and provoke, exploiting our emotions rather than ordering them. Righteous anger expressed on Twitter loses its incisiveness without the control of logic. Storytelling on Facebook or Instagram becomes weakened by platitudes without the uncompromising search for the truth of literature or poetry.
In the 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman looks at how the media disrupts meaningful discourse. He holds that the entertainment factor necessary to making media consumable reduces the quality of our public discourse. While he uses the example of television, much of what he says could be applied to what we see in social media today. He writes:
Television’s way of knowing is uncompromisingly hostile to typography’s way of knowing; . . . television’s conversations promote incoherence and triviality; . . . the phrase “serious television” is a contradiction in terms; and . . . television speaks in only one persistent voice—the voice of entertainment.
Start your day with Public DiscourseSign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.
Social media can be used as a tool that directs our attention to what matters. But these platforms become idols when they consume our attention and influence our social and political reactions. Expressing our reactions through social media can create the illusion of knowledge and wisdom without any seeking or any real pursuit of truth. But we can resist their consumptive demands by practicing prudence. As an intellectual and moral virtue, prudence guides us to know and pursue the good, moving us toward moral dialogue and elevating the moral beauty we seek in our social lives.
Headline-driven content infiltrates topics of conversation and dehumanizes our moral dialogue. It’s possible to be an awe-filled seeker of truth and use social media with prudence; however, social media are mediated by a tech industry that aims to capture our attention and keep us scrolling, not call us into a life of virtue. Conversely, a culture of readers—of literature, specifically—will look to stories and prose, truth and beauty, rather than clickbait and celebrities for the moral wisdom that forms our will.
Reading and the Moral Form of Literature
Literary language, in particular, is language that still reflects the meaning, nuance, and complexity of our experiences and the moral vision that arises from those experiences. While social media can lead us to form connections, they lack the literary techniques that illuminate the mystery of our human bonds and tether those bonds to reality. For those connections to become deep relationships, we need to embrace the reading life as a practice in clarifying our moral vision.
Reading, particularly reading literature, elevates the human experience and perceives the moral weight of experience. In Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life, philosopher Martha Nussbaum calls the novel “a morally controversial form, expressing in its very shape and style, in its mode of interaction with its readers, a normative sense of life.” Literature strengthens our moral vision by engaging us as receptive readers rather than through interrogation as interlocutors, as social media are wont to do.
Reading literature teaches us how to engage in substantive moral dialogue because it expresses ideas through the concrete world itself. Flannery O’Connor reminds us in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, “The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning.” Abstractions sever ideas from experience. Fiction, however, magnifies experience and calls us to notice reality before we begin trying to advance an opinion or a message. Reading enables us to develop the attention, critical and creative thinking, and good judgment that direct how we understand images and content on social media. Readers become better social media users when they can judge content based on its truth rather than its entertainment value.
Abstractions sever ideas from experience. Social media do this by limiting our word counts and contriving a problematic space for language, forcing us to handle deep moral problems with only the tools of a self-seeking idealogue. Literature, however, invites us to deal with the world outside ourselves, to notice others, and to understand them. In an Atlantic article, “Why Activism Leads to So Much Bad Writing,” George Packer explains:
George Eliot described “the severe effort of trying to make certain ideas incarnate, as if they had revealed themselves to me first in the flesh.” Ideology is impersonal, but its exposure to experience and emotion lays bare its tensions and contradictions, ultimately leaving it transformed by prolonged contact with life. Reader and writer can disagree about politics and still, in the words of the critic Irving Howe, “enter an uneasy compact: to expose their opinions to a furious action, and as these melt into the movement of the novel, to find some common recognition, some supervening human bond above and beyond ideas.”
This “uneasy compact” is the place for moral dialogue to blossom into relationships that transcend ideas. While we often see literary devices like tone, voice, point of view, and style as aesthetic and technical choices, these choices are for many writers part of the moral form of literature itself. Understanding how and why an author offers or withholds insight into a character’s inner life involves us as readers in our own moral learning.
Forming the Virtues through Fiction
Fiction guides us in our own moral understanding by engaging our practical wisdom. Aristotle considered phronesis, or practical wisdom, to be the virtue from which all other virtues emerge. Someone who possesses practical wisdom can act well and make good, virtuous choices. This form of wisdom comes through experience and through being able to discern what is morally relevant.
A practically wise person knows the art of living well because she sees and acts in accordance with truth and reality. Unlike a philosopher’s example, literature engages readers as friends. But this literary friendship asks something of us in return. The task of the novel is not solely to give us characters to identify with or relate to for comfort, but rather to move us—out of a limited perspective and into a generative space where we develop a capacity for moral reasoning. Even years after reading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women or Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, I still turn to these literary friendships in motherhood because they admonish me to seek the good despite my human fragility.
We might ask why we can’t just examine our own life with its trials and difficult relationships. Why is our own life insufficient for this kind of deep moral learning? In Love’s Knowledge, Nussbaum argues,
We have never lived enough. Our experience is, without fiction, too confined and too parochial. Literature extends it, making us reflect and feel about what might otherwise be too distant for feeling. . . . The point is that in the activity of literary imagining we are led to imagine and describe with greater precision, focusing our attention on each word, feeling each event more keenly—whereas much of actual life goes by without that heightened awareness, and is thus, in a certain sense, not fully or thoroughly lived.
This relationship between literature and moral development can be traced to Aristotle, who found literature to guide human emotions in an ordered way. Drawing on Aristotle’s answer from his Rhetoric and Poetics, Nussbaum explains how literature expands our moral imagination. Literature gives us concrete examples of what it means to live and act well without the need for moralistic claims, because these examples are based on the lives of characters rather than abstractions. The moral vision of literature arises from an aesthetic experience of reading that disposes us to receive what is good and true through our critical attention and interaction with the story. We don’t read literature to be informed about a public attitude to accept, but rather to be formed in our capacity for moral wisdom.
Literary imagining inspires us to see others by the light of their storied reality rather than as part of a mere category. But when we fail to stretch the muscles of our moral imagination through reading stories and reflecting on our experience, we shouldn’t be surprised when they atrophy.
A New Metaphor
Fiction stretches our imaginative capacity. The success of fiction relies on its interaction with us as readers. Reading requires a humble, receptive posture, which prepares us to practice the virtues necessary for participation in moral dialogue. This participation is the foundation for a flourishing community. Where individualism creates the fractures we find in the digital arena, moral dialogue fueled by practical wisdom builds community. Community with moral vision abandons the consumptive mindset of social media for the sake of forging richer connections.
While we can attempt to use social media as a tool, we should remember that it was never created to be a mere tool. It has laid claim to our time, attention, and language. For Postman, “our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture.” I think he’s right. It’s the metaphor on which the meaning of our social relationships hinges. But we can discover new metaphors—through art and music, literature, poetry, and philosophy—that situate us in our embodied reality and take our human complexity seriously.